Is Global Food Safety Possible, or a Pipedream?

Another food safety milestone went by a few weeks ago with little notice: food products for humans and animals imported into the United States must meet our strict new standards to prevent food contamination and illness outbreaks.

Sounds great, but is that really feasible? The U.S. imports tons of food annually from all over the world: tomatoes from Mexico, jams from England, fruit tarts from France, shrimp from Thailand . . .  and on and on.

In fact, an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

80 Percent of Seafood in the U.S. is Imported

Moreover, as America’s population has become more diverse, imports of cultural or ethnic foods have skyrocketed in popularity. Much of these products come from countries in which food safety is at best irregular, and in some cases non-existent.

For decades, food imports could be blocked if they failed to meet American food safety standards, but in practice, only a tiny portion of foreign product was inspected. State and local public health departments also were overloaded and unable to keep up with foods coming from abroad.

But a substantial segment of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is intended to dramatically step up preventive controls on food imports.

That’s the promise of the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP), which took effect on May 30. More than anything, the FSVP extends the reach of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture well beyond our national borders to ensure that food items for export are safe. The basic regulations governing importers can be found here. But these are the game-changing aspects of the Foreign Supplier Verification Program:

  • All imported food must be certified as coming from sources that have verified their adherence to FSMA, most notably the law’s requirements for a preventive control plan at overseas manufacturing, processing, distribution and shipping facilities. Importers (or agents) also must verify in writing the safety of the items coming into the country.
  • Importers of fruits and vegetables must certify that pesticide residue levels fall below threshold standard established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or else be rejected.
  • FDA inspectors have the right to visit facilities on foreign soil to verify food-safe production, distribution and shipping protocols.
  • By requiring verification, the FSVP also enables food safety regulators to better track food borne illness outbreaks in other countries and siginificantly expand the global supply chain’s transparency.

Together, these requirements represent a great big WOW! Is it even possible to attempt to get a handle on the global food supply – one of the largest and most scattered industries in all the world? And if it were true for years that FDA couldn’t keep up with border inspection of food items flowing into the country, where in the world will the agency obtain funding to step up inspections not just domestically but also abroad.

The answer is that although FSMA’s intentions are clear, implementation and compliance are clearly going to present management challenges, not the least of which is sufficient budgets to support inspections.

On the matter of foreign suppliers verifying that they have preventive control plans in place, the FDA may give some ground. One proposal floating around would allow overseas suppliers meet the voluntary standards of GFSI – the Global Food Safety Initiative – which in many aspects closely parallels FSMA’s requirements. The looming question, of course, is whether voluntary standards will really have teeth, which perhaps explains why this part of the program remains up in the air.

FSMA and the foreign supplier veritifcation program are perfectly timed to the growing interest by consumers in understanding the “transparency” of the foods they eat. In addition to GMOs, and the presence of allergens, consumers want to know the country of origin of the grocery products they buy for themselves and their pets. Yet like so much of public attention to the business of regulation, interest and comment on the foreign supplier verification program has been largely confined to specialized trade publications, with scant mainstream media reporting.

That’s a shame, because the Foreign Supplier Verification Program is something of a watershed in food safety efforts. It is recognition of the global nature of the food chain, for one. It also aspires to put in place a preventive control protocol with enough check points and government oversight to put a serious dent in foodborne illness outbreaks around the world. However, a dose of reality is necessary: FSMA enforcement is seriously under-funded, and state governments are hardly in a position to make up the funding shortfall.

So, at this point, foreign supplier verification, and the entire Food Safety Modernization Act, can best be seen as codifying in the law aspirational goals.  It would be a good outcome if these measures ended up guaranteeing a safe food supply. But that’s unlikely given the huge size of the global food chain and the ever-present danger of human error and microbiological contamination. With perfection virtually impossible, food consumers will have to hope that the foods they are purchasing from anywhere in the world will be as good and as safe as advertised.

 

 

 

 

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